Trial by ordeal was a form of judgment used by the Medieval church to use god's will to determine the guilt or innocence of the accused party, often rigged in ways so that the judged had no real chance of acquittal.

Trial by Iron

There were at least three forms of trial by iron used:

1) (sometimes attributed as trial by fire) The accused would have to hold a red-hot iron bar and carry it a set distance. If, after three days, the hand was healing and not festering (or, in some cases, if the hand was not hurt at all (!)) the accused was set free. Otherwise, s/he was hanged.
2) The accused would have to lick a similarly heated bar of iron and not burn his/her tongue.
3) Several ploughshares were heated red-hot and placed unevenly on the ground. The accused was made to walk across them blindfolded and barefoot and was hanged if s/he suffered any injury in so doing.

Trial by Water

This was made familiar by the stories of the Salem Witch Hunt. The accused would be dropped into a cold river. If s/he floated, s/he would be considered guilty and hanged. If s/he sank, s/he was declared innocent.

This was not always as fatal as it sounds; at times, those who sank were fished out and set free. Of course, there were times when this method simply became an easy way of disposing of one's (usually political) enemies.

In 1215, the Pope forbade the ordeals of iron and of cold water, ruling that it be replaced by the already existing (and not always more merciful) method of trial by jury.

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Editor's note: As outlined by Lucy-S at SFF Net, the site referenced above has gone offline. As of March 2017, you can find Jo Beverly at, and the linked article seems to now be at:

To modern eyes trial by ordeal sounds barbaric and crazy, but it actually works, to a degree. Well, it's not a measure of God's will, but if you believe that it is; then it works.

This is more than a placebo effect (where expectation of improvement due to a treatment improves perception of symptoms).

With trial by ordeal, if you are guilty and expect punishment, then you will be particularly stressed. If you are stressed, it has recently been realised that your body releases corticosteroids that has several effects, which includes delaying healing... On the other hand if you have a clear conscience, then you will be relaxed and your body will deal with the injury far more readily.

Similarly, if you are licking a red hot surface, and you are nervous because you actually did the crime, then you will have a dry mouth. In that case, the tongue will tend to burn. Otherwise, steam acts as a pretty decent insulator as anyone who has put a wet finger on a hot iron can tell you.

In some cultures trial by ordeal has been approached using the Calabar Bean. This is a bean that contains a painless poison. A preparation is made of the bean and fed to the prisoner. If the prisoner vomits within half an hour then they are set free. Otherwise, they die. The trick is that the response of the prisoner is modified by stress; a highly stressed, worried, guilty person has a much more acidic stomach and this releases the poison more quickly, which will inhibit the vomit reflex and permit the poisoning to go to completion.

Of course all this stuff falls down if you are sociopathic. In that case, you've done wrong, but you just don't care. You'll deal with the ordeal just fine. Hey, no legal system is perfect ;-)

Referring to trial by ordeal in the middle ages:

After the ordeals of hot iron and boiling water, the wound was bound for three days and then examined. If it was healing well, you were (supposed to be) judged innocent. There is one interesting catch that is not mentioned above; the more serious the crime, the greater the ordeal. For minor offences, you might have to carry a red-hot lump of iron weighing one pound, but for a more serious offence the weight (and size) of the iron went up to as much as three pounds. (You would probably have to carry it, in either case, for about three yards). With hot water, your arm might be dipped in only to the wrist, or all the way to the elbow.

In the ordeal by cold water, the person was bound hand and foot, and thrown into the water. There would be a rope tied to their waist, with two functions. First, there would be a knot tied in this rope at a specific distance from the accused's body; if the accused sunk far enough to wet the knot, they were innocent, but if the knot stayed dry, they were guilty. The other function of the rope was to pull the accused out. You'll notice that they'll be wanting to pull you out whether or not you're guilty -- if you float, they'll be wanting to kill you, and if you sink, they'll want to save you. The whole thing seems to be set up backwards, doesn't it? The reasoning was thus: the priest running the trial said a liturgy over the water, linking it to the baptismal water; if the person was innocent, the baptismal waters would welcome him, if not, they would reject him. (I don't know what they did if the person had never been baptised).

Liveforever adds that a trial by ordeal could also be used to prove a claim, as when Harald Bluetooth challenged a missionary named Poppo to a trial by ordeal after he said that there was only one God (the Christian one), and that the Aesir were actually just demons. Poppo held a piece of hot iron in his hand without being burned, and thus Bluetooth and his followers turned to Christianity.

As a matter of speculation, the Leidenfrost effect may be a factor in the trail by iron (see Dipping your hand into molten lead); this might allow someone to come through a trail undamaged, if the iron was the right temperature and their hand was damp.

On a lighter note, not all of the trials were so grim; there was also corsned, "trial by cake", in which a piece of bread was consecrated and fed to the suspected sinner. If they could eat it without choking, they were innocent.

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